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Chicago Cubs: Looking at Willson Contreras’ first month as a starter

Apr 17, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (40) makes a play during the ninth inning of the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 17, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras (40) makes a play during the ninth inning of the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports /
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In his first full season with the Chicago Cubs, catcher Willson Contreras has turned heads behind the plate. We break down his first month as the starter.

Last season, the Chicago Cubs mixed and matched behind the plate between Miguel Montero, David Ross and Willson Contreras. With Ross riding off into the sunset after Game 7  of the Fall Classic and Montero moving into his mid-30s, the reins were passed to Contreras.

The 24-year-old Venezuelan native was named the team’s starting catcher prior to Opening Day 2017, giving him a great deal of responsibility in his first full big league campaign. Furthermore, he inherited the role of personal catcher to staff ace Jon Lester, who had worked almost exclusively with Ross since joining the Cubs in 2015.

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So, one month in, how does Contreras’ body of work stack up against other catchers around the league?

First, let’s look at his work behind the plate. His arm ranks as one of the best in all of Major League Baseball. Entering play Wednesday, Contreras leads the league with eight caught stealing.

He also ranks eighth in baseball in putouts as a catcher (164). As noted above, though, it’s his cannon of a right arm that really keeps opponents on their toes. He’s thrown out just under half of would-be base stealers this season, coming in at 47 percent.

Relationship with Lester is key

Catching Jon Lester, despite his veteran acumen, isn’t an easy task. The gritty southpaw can be emotional on the mound, beating himself up when things are going as planned. He’s known for jawing at umpires when strike calls don’t fall his way and, as a 24-year-old in his first season, Contreras is now tasked with keeping him calm.

So far, so good. The 19-game winner from a year ago has allowed more than two earned in just a pair of his six outings this season. A pair of unsightly starts in late April pushed his ERA higher than you’d like, but he gutted his way through his first win of the year on Tuesday, something that didn’t escape Contreras.

Keeping the Chicago ace on-point and focused is a tall task. As the season progresses, this tandem will inevitably grow more comfortable. By the time the stretch run comes late in the year, expect Lester and Contreras to be humming along just in time for October baseball.

Struggling at the dish

It’s not a huge surprise, then, that Contreras seems to have taken a step back offensively in the season’s first month. Granted, this is a trend impacting several key pieces of the lineup. Contreras showed the pop his bat carries after his mid-season call-up in 2016.

He slugged a dozen homers and drove in 35 in just 76 games. This year, his slugging percentage is down nearly 100 points in an admittedly small sample size. His batting average has also fallen – down from .282 in his rookie campaign to .233 in 2017.

I’d expect a bounce back at the plate as the season progresses. Contreras has all the tools to be a successful big-league hitter. Once he gets settled in behind the plate, look for him to start making more noise when he steps up to it.

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